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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Electric vehicle revolution in hands of African misfit

EV's need batteries, which in turn rely on a large amount of cobalt - most of which comes from the highly volatile Democratic Republic of Congo

A copper-cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
A copper-cobalt mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The dozen or more mega battery factories coming into operation around the world will require, among other things, a large supply of cobalt - most of which comes from one of the least stable countries in the world.

Cobalt is an essential part of the lithium-based batteries that today power everything from mobile phones to electric cars. Much of it is sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a vast country in the centre of Africa. It is also riven by internal strife, rampaging warlords and illicit mining.

About half of the world's supply comes from the DRC, as a by-product of copper and nickel producers operating in the country. Not only is most of it extracted in the DRC, cobalt production is limited to a handful of mines, mostly in the eastern Katanga province.

To put this into perspective, when the London-listed commodities firm Glencore suspended operations at its Katanga mine two years ago, it removed around 20 per cent of world supply.

Total demand is now just under 100,000 tonnes annually, about in line with supply, according to the Toronto-based Global Energy Metals, a specialist investor in battery-related metals. Demand is increasing at a rate of 30 per cent a year, expected to top off at an extra 20,000 tonnes by 2020.

"Consensus is that cobalt availability is the biggest raw material concern when it comes to battery production," Paul Robinson, the director at CRU Group, a London-based company that provides analysis for the metals market, tells The National.

Because of this, most battery research now is focused on lowering cobalt content in batteries. Some are even looking at replacing cobalt entirely with alternatives such as iron phosphate, but this usually means reduced energy density. For electric cars this will probably mean reduced range – the opposite of what global car makers are aiming for.

"Even with these developments CRU still expects the cobalt deficit to widen as electric vehicle demand surges," Mr Robinson says.

The major battery producers such as Panasonic and LG Chem are looking for options, according to Reuters. “We acknowledge the price rise but because [cobalt] is a rare material, we have been working hard to minimise the usage from the beginning of development,” said a Panasonic spokesman.

The crunch is being sped up by the entry of almost every major car maker into the electric arena. Just a few years back the US firm Tesla was pretty much alone when it came to talking about mass producing electric vehicles and competition for battery related raw materials was minimal.

This has now substantially changed, especially for cobalt. Between 2012 the price per tonne fluctuated between US$25,000 to $35,000. This year though it has traded at almost twice that, between $50,000 and $60,000 a tonne.

Transparency Market Research estimates the global lithium-ion battery market at US$30 billion in 2015, rising to more than $75bn by 2024. Morgan Stanley analysts expect global car sales to rise by 50 per cent by 2050 to more than 130 million units a year, and estimates that electric vehicles will account for at least 47 per cent of that total.

Telsa and its much hyped Gigafactory in Nevada now will have to compete with battery producers and other car makers for cobalt, lithium and nickel to meet its production growth targets. Tesla's projected aim is 500,000 cars a year by the end of next year – which would require just under 8,000 tonnes of cobalt, around 6 per cent of current global supply. Tesla did not respond for requests for comment.

In the meantime, rivals are coming in thick and fast. The Korean company LG Chem is just the latest to announce a version of a gigafactory of its own; the Korean producer plans to spend $1.6 billion on a battery plant in Poland. The factory will produce the equivalent of 100,000 automotive battery packs, and is expected to take advantage of the Europe-wide push to eliminate petrol and diesel engines within the coming decades.

Even experienced motor manufacturers will find securing the cobalt they need to be a challenge. In September it was reported that VW, a relatively new entrant to the battery electric field, was seeking contracts to lock in cobalt supply.

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The world's largest car maker had asked producers to submit proposals on supplying the material for up to 10 years from 2019. VW has said it would invest €20 billion (Dh86.76bn) in electric technology as it tries to put the "dieselgate" scandal in the rear-view mirror.

Just a month later though, in mid-October the Financial Times reported that producers had shunned the German car maker, declining to sign any long-term deals. London is the heart of the world industrial metals trading market and Industry suppliers there were put off by the exceptionally low prices VW was offering – to the point of finding the numbers insulting.

“They’re being arrogant because they’re automotive and they’re used to doing it,” one trader said, quoted in the FT. “They completely misjudged the contents of the tender. There’s no point negotiating - it’s not even a discussion point.”

Contacted by The National, a spokesman for VW did not directly respond to the FT's claims, but said the company was working to "safeguard supplies".

The spokesman added that VW intended to have electrified its entire model portfolio by 2030 at the latest. "This means that, by then, there will be at least one electrified version of each of the 300 or so group models across all brands and markets", meaning at least four gigafactories for battery cells will be needed, the spokesman added.

Motor manufacturers have huge experience dealing with global, complex supply chains, says Mr Robinson. However, the speed at which the battery market is growing means they are having to learn an entire new supply chain, including cost, availability and quality.

"Understanding the interconnected issues around multiple raw materials is also a challenge. Manufacturers are still learning about these new raw materials markets."

All of these plans are emerging in the belief that supply from the DRC will remain reliable. The country has experienced numerous civil wars in the past half century. The government itself has little control over the countryside outside the capital Kinshasa, from where road access to Katanga is near impossible.

There are other producers and it may be that, in future, more difficult to access deposits may come into play. Identified world terrestrial cobalt resources are about 25 million tonnes, according to the US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2017. "The vast majority of these resources are in sediment-hosted stratiform copper deposits in Congo (Kinshasa) and Zambia; nickel-bearing laterite deposits in Australia and nearby island countries and Cuba; and magmatic nickel-copper sulfide deposits hosted in mafic and ultramafic rocks in Australia, Canada, Russia, and the United States," the report says.

But it adds: "More than 120 million tonnes of cobalt resources have been identified in manganese nodules and crusts on the floor of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans."

For all the ambitions of battery storage, the DRC may become the choke point that slows the ability of the global electric car vision to be realised.

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